Off the Shelf: The jazz age, mobsters and a notorious Jewish madam

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What makes a biography greater than the story of one individual? When it narrates the history of an age, offering readers a better understanding of the times in which the person lived. That describes Debby Applegate’s excellent “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age” (Doubleday), which features a panoramic look at life during the early part of the 20th century. Its almost 470 pages (not including notes, bibliography and index) offer a fascinating portrayal of the difficult choices some immigrants to the U.S. made in order to survive and, in some cases, thrive.

Polly Adler is best known as the owner of numerous brothels in Manhattan whose customers included the elite in politics, show business, the arts (including male and female members of the Algonquin Table), high society and gangsters of all ethnicities. The brothels not only delivered sex for pay, but served as an after-hours salon where people – men and women – came to drink, talk and party. Those who met the 13-year-old Adler when she arrived alone in the United States might have been surprised at the course her life took. It’s not as if she aspired to the life of a madam when she was young. But after she began working long and stultifying hours in a factory, she realized that all she had to look forward to was marriage, an apartment crowded with children and a life of poverty. The young woman wanted something more, as did many young women of the time. 

That a factory foreman raped her when she was a teenager – leaving her pregnant and needing an abortion – helped solidify Adler’s desire to escape the dreariness of her life. After she stayed out overnight partying, she was thrown out of the apartment where she was living with relatives. Alone and jobless in Manhattan, Alder was befriended by an actress and dazzled by the life her new friend was living. Adler learned that many women looking to make it in show business discretely supported themselves by accepting money from male friends: after all, they reasoned, what was the difference between sleeping with a man because he took you out to dinner and showed you a good time, or because he gave you some money in exchange for your time.

Applegate shows how the world was changing – the way women were demanding to be treated as equals, including in the sexual arena. Where Adler differed from others was her leadership qualities, which allowed her to manage other women, rather than acting as a prostitute herself. And Adler was not the only Jewish woman to work as a madam. Applegate notes that “it was an article of faith held by both urban reformers and the underworld that Jewish women made the best madams. This belief was backed by statistics. In the first decades of the twentieth century, when Jews were approximately 20 percent of New York’s population, they owned an estimated 50 percent of the city’s brothels.” The author sees a sociological reason behind this: “The shtetl tradition of the balaboosta – the cheerful, efficient wife who ran both the home and the family business while her husband studied the Torah – developed in many Jewish women the rare combination of practical financial sense and homey hospitality to run a successful home.” One way Adler did differ from some in the business was that while she drank, she never did drugs. She’d seen the way that drugs ruined lives and tried to keep the women who worked for her clean. 

What helped keep her business going was a seemingly endless supply of women (including those in show business) willing to supplement their income by serving as escorts or prostitutes until something else came along. It didn’t hurt that the prostitution business was changing: with help from friends, Adler had apartments throughout the city where men and women could meet or spend the evening together. Her women never roamed the streets. Most arrangements were made through Adler, who manned the phone in her main apartment, which also served as a salon and speakeasy, in addition to being her home. Adler became an expert at juggling different needs, screening her customers and picking the right woman for each customer. At one point, she had more than 600 women working for her.

This might make it seem as if Adler’s life was never-ending party, filled with booze, laughter and humorous banter. But Applegate writes about the more difficult aspects: the police raids, the inability to tell family members how you really made a living and the real risk of being beaten and robbed with no legal way to report it. The best Adler could hope for was the gangsters who were her friends spread the word not to touch her. Many police officials and district attorneys received kickbacks or hush money from gangsters and madams to ignore their activities. And during part of this era, the corruption rose to the highest levels, including the mayor of New York. Applegate offers a quote from American impresario Billy Rose to show just how dangerous this life really was. Rose tells of an incident that occurred one night at a club in which he had an interest: “When a harmless lush made a wisecrack that left [gangster] Waxey [Gordon] unamused, the portly former pickpocket jumped up and drove his knee into the drunk’s stomach, then proceeded to give him ‘the boots’... This consists of driving the heel into the man’s face and head and kicking him in other tender parts of his anatomy. I watched Waxey kick this man’s face until there was practically no face left. Then I went into the kitchen and bawled like a baby.” Rose notes, “[The] next day I unloaded my interest in the club.”

After World War II, changes occurred that made it difficult for Adler to remain in business. Many of the gangsters who supported the world in which she lived had died (some even of natural causes) and the FBI was working to shut down her operation. Adler moved from New York City to California, went back to school and wrote her memoirs, which, with the help of a ghost writer, were published. The story of her life was even made into a movie. Adler managed to live well because she’d been smart: she saved during the high times, meaning she had cash, stocks and real estate for support during her retirement. 

Applegate notes that Adler cast herself as a “modern Horatio Alger heroine.” However, not everyone agreed with this. Adler’s admirers called “her brothel... an intoxicating playground for madcap Broadway modernists and cutting-edge capitalists in hot pursuit of new pleasures. It was a space where the imagination was allowed free play, unfettered by outside eyes and conventional rules.” Her foes believed “she exerted a sinister outsize influence with powerful men whose after-dark decision making affected millions of Americans,” and not always for the betterment of the nation. 

Readers may find themselves agreeing with both her admirers and detractors. It’s possible to admire her resolve while, at the same time, condemning her actions. That’s the beauty of Applegate’s work: she shows the world in which Adler lived in all its glory, while not neglecting its sordid side. This allows readers to make their own decisions about this complex, fascinating woman and the glorious and dangerous world in which she lived.